My memories of '68: Chaos in black and white

9 events that changed the world in 1968
9 events that changed the world in 1968

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    9 events that changed the world in 1968

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9 events that changed the world in 1968 01:42

For more on the year that changed America, watch CNN's Original Series Event "1968" on Sunday, May 27, and Monday, May 28, at 9 p.m. ET. David Axelrod is a CNN commentator and host of the podcast "The Axe Files," now a regularly featured show on CNN. He was senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chief strategist for the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)If I hadn't lived through 1968, I might dismiss a film recounting the explosive events of that year as some sort of fictional dystopia, a dark political thriller sprung from Hollywood's fertile imagination.

But to a teenager inspired at the beginning of that decade by the soaring idealism of John F. Kennedy, the violent discord and cascading calamities of '68 felt like a nation coming apart, and the fractures it exposed still reverberate in our politics today.
America began the '60s still largely bathed in the gauzy afterglow of World War II. By '68, we were riven by the battles over civil rights and a war in a distant land called Vietnam, to which the country had committed an astonishing half a million troops.
A new generation challenged authority, from our own houses to the White House. A cultural revolution took full flower, its mantra: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The gulf between races, between regions, between rural and urban communities, grew into seemingly unbridgeable chasms.
    And it all came to a violent, fractious head in 1968.
    It was the decade in which television became a truly pervasive presence in our lives, and I watched the main events of our national drama in '68 unfold on a bulky, black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV. It sat on a movable cart in the living room of my family's small rental apartment in New York City.
    I was a voracious follower of politics even then, and watched in stunned disbelief on March 31 when a beleaguered President Lyndon Johnson surprised the nation by announcing during a speech on the war that "I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your president."
    Young people had driven LBJ from office. Grassroots defiance had created the opportunity for an end to the war and a new direction. Or so it seemed.
    I was home alone on April 4, when whatever I was watching when I was supposed to be doing my homework was interrupted by the bulletin that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed in Memphis. Beyond the sadness, I felt an ominous sense of dread. I got up and put the chain on our front door, as if to ward off the rage and violence I knew would follow.
    Later, I would see the footage of JFK's brother Bobby, now a candidate for president, share the news with a crowd in the inner city of Indianapolis that had gathered to hear him speak. His grim announcement elicited shouts of horror.
    Gently reminding them that he had lost a loved one to assassination, Bobby pleaded for calm and understanding, instead of hatred and violence. Indianapolis was one of the few cities that didn't erupt in violence that night.
    I was an earnest little foot soldier for Bobby; a tiny cog in a gathering movement for change. I admired his courage and idealism; his bluntness and willingness to tell hard truths, even to friendly audiences. I proudly sported my red and blue campaign button with RFK emblazoned in white; an emblem of challenge, hope and renewal.
    I stayed up late on June 4 to see if he would win the California primary, and when he made his victory remarks -- "and now it's on to Chicago, and let's win there" -- I went to sleep content in the belief that Bobby would claim the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
    The next morning, I woke up to the devastating news that RFK had been shot and was tenuously clinging to life. His death the following day was a gut punch. All the hope for change seemed to die with him.
    That black-and-white TV also framed the massive confrontation that followed two months later in Chicago. The dark pall of war and specter of the brooding president, effectively banished from his own Democratic Party convention, hung over the proceedings. My jaw dropped as police battered protesters on the streets and chaos reigned inside the International Amphitheatre, a cavernous arena near the old stockyards neighborhood on the city's south side.
    As a 9-year-old, I had met Sen. Abe Ribicoff of Connecticut through a family friend on a visit to Washington. So I watched in rapt attention when he rose to speak on behalf of the symbolic anti-war candidacy of a Senate colleague who four years later would become the party's standard-bearer.
    "And with George McGovern as President of the United States we wouldn't have to have Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago!" he said, causing Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Illinois delegation to rise in fist-pumping, epithet-spewing fury.
    The raucous convention doomed its nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Many young people walked away from Humphrey, once seen as a progressive champion, over his servile support for Johnson and the war. Only in the final days did I feel moved to hit the streets and leaflet for the Democratic ticket. (The world undoubtedly was awaiting my fateful decision.)
    But a late surge for Humphrey would fall short.
    George Wallace, the pugnacious, segregationist governor of Alabama, ran as a third-party candidate, hoping to tip the election into the House of Representatives, where he could leverage his weight behind a rollback of the landmark civil rights laws passed in '64 and '65.
    While he failed in that goal, Wallace would carry five Southern states and show surprising strength in white ethnic enclaves in northern cities. His racially tinged, "Stand Up for America" assault on Washington elites and liberals foreshadowed the rhetoric and appeals that would propel Donald Trump to the presidency nearly a half century later.
    "If a group of anarchists lay down in front of my automobile, it's gonna be the last one they ever gonna want to lay down in front of," Wallace gleefully exclaimed.
    Drafting off of Wallace and unrest in the country with more discreet, coded words, former Vice President Richard Nixon, the Republican nominee, promised "the silent majority" that he would restore "law and order" on America's streets.
    When Nixon's election became clear, I was glum but my mother wept. She remembered him as an unscrupulous campaigner and virulent red baiter. "He's evil," she said. "You'll see."
    Six years later, Nixon would resign the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal, an attempt by his White House and campaign to subvert our democratic election process and the conspiracy he led to cover up the crime.